My experience as a startup founder has taught me quite a bit about honing customer development processes. Every customer development cycle begins with customer discovery.
In a blog post, entrepreneur Steve Blank recounts a meeting he had with a former student; the story illustrates the concept of customer discovery in action. His student has an idea for a company: to build drones that take aerial images and provide crop data to farmers. Initially the student believes drones will solve the problem. In reality, all that the farmers — the student’s prospective customers — really desire as a product is the data. The payoff of understanding what the true product should be is that the company is able to perform an early pivot before investing time and resources into the wrong product.
The student spoke to customers to reveal what his product should be: in this case algorithms and data, rather than drones. Had he followed older product-centric development methods, he would have misread the market and wasted time and money developing special-purpose drones when really the focus needed to be on the data and finding a cheaper way to deliver it.
Here are three best practices for customer discovery from my experience.
1. Focus on a smaller piece of the puzzle
When you have a vision but no product, it’s exhilarating, but also terrifying. It’s easy to take a vision and start to build a product around it. But how do you know exactly what you should focus on? If you start with customer discovery, which potential customers do you talk to? Being a startup founder is like being a writer in front of a blank page: All possibilities seem to be open, but many will lead to failure. Which path do you choose? One way to help illuminate a viable path is to focus your attention on one small piece of the puzzle at a time.
Rather than interview 30 customers at once about all of their pain points, focus on one problem with a smaller number of potential customers. Interview six organizations about the initial problem statement and gather feedback. Once you’ve tested the hypothesis of the initial statement, interview another group of six organizations to gather more information and refine the problem. Employ the next group of organizations to identify whether or not the product concept you envision might solve that problem. Finally, a fourth group of interviews can serve to help you understand the scope of the project.
The exercise of breaking down a larger issue into smaller components is a crucial activity to perform when analyzing any part of building a startup. That process will help you focus on more manageable facets of your vision and will help keep you from feeling overwhelmed. The discipline of customer development dictates that startups must develop for a few, rather than the many. Focusing on individual smaller parts of an idea will help ensure you don’t try to develop for too many use cases or potential customer types.
2. Constrain yourself
The renowned architect, Frank Gehry, reflects during an interview on the idea of constraints. “I had a house recently with no constraints,” Gehry says. “And I had a horrible time with it. I had to look in the mirror a lot. Who am I? Why am I doing this? What is this all about?” Finally, he says, “I think we turn those constraints into action.”
The customer development cycle focuses on discovering and brainstorming before executing on an idea. If you have a vision and a blank page, where do you start? How do you avoid generating numerous ill-conceived ideas rather than successful product iterations? Well, you use customer interviews and research to create constraints for yourself before you start developing your product.
Even if your initial constraint is simply to define your vision in PowerPoint, you can’t be too abstract; you have to put a stake in the ground, mock up some screens and layout the interfaces and interactions. You then refine these slides and concepts after each set of customer interviews. The restrictions can improve your product development process because they force decisions and remove the possibility of taking the easy way out. If you have constraints you must adhere to when mapping out your idea, you’re more likely to develop a unique, honed product that customers actually need.
3. Don’t rely on customers for everything
Customers will not tell you everything they expect of your product because they can’t. Often, they will focus on the problem right in front of them and not necessarily the problem they will have in the future. If you follow their lead literally, you will end up designing a product for today; but by the time you’re done, it will be outdated. Customers can’t tell you where the puck is going; you have to try to find this out by listening to them, digging into the underlying problem they have and using their feedback to design for the future.
Customer discovery is not solely about asking customers to tell you every single specific function they need to see in your final product before they purchase it. Rather, the process is about tapping into a network of organizations that will help you define constraints so you may focus your blank page on a smaller and more manageable piece of the puzzle.
Customer discovery is about problem solving, not selling
Following these three suggestions can help accelerate your product development and ensure you iterate with a clearly defined purpose. Using customer feedback to help define your product’s journey will mitigate mistakes and save resources along the way to a polished offering. But your customer discovery process will go nowhere if you approach it with the wrong attitude.
Entering into a conversation with a prospective customer as a seller is a sure way to destroy your chances of gathering helpful feedback. Ultimately, product development is an endeavor in joint problem solving. You’re attempting to build relationships with your buying audience and identify their frustrations. Your customers are willing to help not just because they might buy later but because, as humans, they want to learn and discover, as well. This spirit of taking a joint journey together is much more powerful than one where it feels like a market research exercise.
So I’ll close with the human element in mind. If you focus on the human aspect of product development, and ask customers to collaborate with you to define what they need, then a customer discovery process will help you discover the true market need, hone your aim and hit the target.
Girish Pancha is CEO and co-founder of StreamSets.